Marine Corps Amphibious Combat Vehicle: Acquisition the Right Way

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The past several decades are littered with examples of major military acquisition programs that went bad, costing tens of billions of dollars. Rarely have the military services been able to learn from their mistakes and restructure a failed program so it can succeed. One exception to this tendency is the Marine Corps’ Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) program. Following the decision to terminate the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), the Marine Corps regrouped, rethought its requirements, developed a carefully modulated acquisition strategy and moved forward with the ACV. It appears that this time the Marine Corps got it right.

U.S. amphibious warfare forces are this country’s first line of defense. Their mobility, flexibility, lethality, and modularity make them a particularly valuable asset for Combatant Commanders to address threats and challenges across the conflict spectrum. Amphibious warfare forces are unique in their ability to project decisive military power over water, across the shore and deep inland.

The key to Marine Corps operations is the ability to exploit the advantages of sovereign basing at sea to swiftly move ashore at places and times of its choosing and from there, conduct decisive land operations. The Navy’s fleet of amphibious warships are designed to enable the movement of personnel, equipment and supplies onto land and to provide support for landing forces as they operate inland. In addition to transporting Marines and their equipment, the large deck amphibious warships are capable of launching stealthy F-35B strike fighters, MV-22 tiltrotor aircraft, and attack, utility and heavy-lift helicopters. The remaining amphibious warfare ships, most particularly the newer LPD-17s, carry the bulk of Marine Corps personnel, equipment and supplies. They also provide command and control, intelligence and medical support for deployed forces.

The Marine Corps acquired specialized platforms to enable the movement to shore. There is the venerable Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV), first procured in 1972, which provides direct lift of assault elements from amphibious warships to the shore. It can also operate inland alongside Marine maneuver units. The Landing Craft, Air Cushion, now being replaced by the Ship-to-Shore Connector was designed to move large payloads, including nearly 150 fully equipped Marines and heavy armored vehicles, from over-the-horizon vessels to a landing zone.

Several decades ago, the Marine Corps recognized that the nature of warfare was changing and that adversaries both large and small were acquiring advanced capabilities with which to threaten amphibious ships and the forces deploying from them.  As a result, future landing operations would need to be conducted from platforms farther out at sea and in a compressed time period. Once ashore, Marine Corps units would face intense firepower from adversaries armed with sophisticated anti-armor weapons. To this end, they sought to invest in aerial transports such as the MV-22 and in new amphibious vehicles to improve the mobility and agility of landing forces.

The Marine Corps’ initial effort to replace the AAV with a new platform, the EFV, an altogether remarkable armored platform capable of high-speed movement from landing ships to shore, fell afoul of a combination of changing requirements and declining procurement budgets. In response, the Marine Corps came up with a clever solution: a phased modernization program for the ACV that would produce sets of increasingly capable platforms as technology and resources become available.

The ACV program envisioned a three-phase procurement. The ACV Increment 1.1 was to be a derivative of an off-the-shelf vehicle, carrying 10-13 Marines plus crew, and capable of operating as part of a mobile ground combat team alongside Marine Corps M-1 Abrams tanks and the residual AAVs. While the Increment 1.2 vehicle would have a limited ability to transit relatively calm waters, it was expected to require transport to move from ship to shore. Increment 1.2 would be an improved version of 1.1 capable of carrying a full Marine Corps rifle squad of the 13-plus crew but with speed in the water equal to or greater than that of the legacy AAV and capable of carrying larger and heavier weapons. In essence, the Increment 1.2 vehicle would be able to self-deploy from an amphibious ship. The final phase of the program, Increment 2.0, would be a new design, with sufficient high at-sea speeds to permit deployments from over-the-horizon while at the same time being more capable of engaging in land combat.

Last year, BAE Systems won the initial competition for the ACV Increment 1.1. The BAE vehicle is based on the Iveco Superav 8x8 wheeled armored vehicle with additional features that enhance its lethality, survivability and on-land mobility. Although the Superav could deploy from ships, it did not have the water speed or range the Marine Corps wanted in its ACV.

It now turns out that the BAE Systems ACV is even more capable than the Marine Corps had hoped. The first 16 of more than 200 Increment 1.1 vehicles have been undergoing extensive testing for some months now. According to published reports, the BAE vehicle performed remarkably well in its trials. The ACV was able to launch and recover from amphibious ships stationed more than 12 miles out at sea, travel across the water relatively quickly and negotiate six-foot waves before landing. As a result of these tests, the Marines have certified it as capable of meeting the requirements envisioned for the Increment 1.2 vehicle. This allowed the Marine Corps to collapse Increment 1.1 and 1.2. What had been planned as a full second increment will now focus on the design and production of specialized variants of the ACV.  BAE Systems is almost certain to build all 700 ACVs envisioned under the first two increments.

The Marine Corps ACV program is an example of smart procurement focused on meeting critical near-term modernization needs. Based on its experience in the EFV program, which pushed the boundaries of technology, the Marine Corps chose a lower-risk path based on deliberate, incremental modernization. As a consequence, Marine riflemen will get better and more affordable vehicles sooner while research continues on the ACV 2.0.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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